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genre criticism

Dear Author

Romance and the ‘Meaning of Life’

In response to last week’s guest post by Zoe Brouthers on feminine sacrifice in Romance, author Moriah Jovan wrote a very thoughtful comment on the role that faith plays in so many people’s lives, despite its marginalization in mainstream Romance not tagged as inspirational. What especially caught my attention was this part of her comment:

I find it really rather odd that romance protagonists mostly don’t have any driving philosophy or faith. They don’t talk about their deities or their engagement with their philosophies. And I find the lack of mention of a church as part of their daily lives (belief not being necessary) in historicals inexplicable.

So to use Kaetrin’s “accumulation effect,” to me, the lack of characters having either a faith or a driving life philosophy is a huge gaping maw I can’t ignore anymore.

I have lately been complaining to friends that much of the books I’ve tried to read suffer from what I’m calling a “lack of suspense.” But as soon as I read Jovan’s comment, I realized that what I was really missing was a sense of both purpose and purposefulness in the way people in Romance novels live – beyond, of course, the goal of ‘finding love’ or a generalized sense of happiness or ‘completion.’

A driving philosophy is often something we think of in religious or spiritual terms, but it doesn’t have to be. Professions that operate within a strict ethical structure (physicians, lawyers, judges, therapists, etc.) also provide opportunities to articulate a sense of purpose or meaning that goes beyond the physical or emotional attraction we see at the surface level of romantic attachment

However, in the US, particularly, we are seeing a powerful divisiveness when it comes to religion, where those who come from certain religious traditions (especially evangelical Christianity) feel marginalized by society as a whole, even as those who identify as non-religious, and especially non-Christian, feel the same way. This post on “open secularism” making the rounds is a good illustration of this phenomenon (the article plus the 400+ comment thread, that is).

One of the results of this divisiveness seems to be that religion has become a difficult subject in mainstream Romance outside inspirationals. There was a great discussion of the difficulties in rendering Christian themes in historical Romance in the comment thread to Sunita’s review of Piper Huguley’s The Preacher’s Promise. This series seemed to divide Romance readers, as I saw comments by some who would not touch the book for its religiosity, while others were drawn to both the historical accuracy of this element and the role spirituality played in the story and in the development of the characters and the romance. And it’s an interesting element of our discussions about historical accuracy that we so often seem to ignore the really central role that religion – or at least the church – played in many people’s lives. As Sunita pointed out in a discussion about this topic last night, for many people the Church as an institution was very much a locus of social exchange. So it wasn’t just about faith, but also about where people gathered and spent time and exchanged in a variety of activities that may or may not have been directly connected to the overtly religious aspect of the church.

At the same time, we have sheik novels where religion may play a central role, but there are legitimate concerns about the realism with which Islam, for example, is rendered. Often the religion in play isn’t even named. Ditto for novels featuring Native Americans, which may or may not (often not) portray realistic/fact-based religious and/or spiritual belief systems.

Taken together, I think this portrays a bunch of mixed signals in regard to how faith is represented in Romance, signals that suggest a desire for deeper meaning, as long as it’s not confined within certain religious dogmas or traditions. Similarly, so-called “issue” or “cause” books can divide readers, as well, and I just want to clarify that I’m not referring to these kinds of books when I talk about meaning and purpose.

Not so long ago, Jane had an acutely insightful take on the popularity of motorcycle Romances, comparing them to Scottish Highlander stories and Medievals, in part because of the culture of the “tribe.”

I’ve read a ton of MC books and frankly most of them are pretty bad but I believe that the reason it is so popular right now is because of the tribe based culture of the club. Tribes have a long history in literature and romance. The first tribe based romance books I ever read were Scottish Highlander stories. The structure of a Highlander novel is not unlike an MC book.

Both include a militaristic hierarchy with a leader, several strong wingmen, and others that live within the confines of the primary property whether it is hold, fief, or armory. Both types of stories feature warring clans vying for power. Often the head of the tribe is a male with a patriarchal power structure.  The concept of loyalty along with external signage (whether it be plaids–although those came much later in history than depicted in many romances–or cuts) is vital. Scottish stories could (and sometimes did) feature a female clan leader. Medievals often followed the same structure.

Pushing that concept a bit further knocks it right into Jovan’s insight about the lack of “driving philosophy or faith” in Romance protagonists and the desire for meaning without having it be explicitly religious or even spiritual. Whatever the sexual politics of these groups, they are, without question, organized around a kind of faith or dogma, and that belief system structures both the way they live their lives and the way any Romantic attachment will theoretically be carried out. Of course, when that philosophy comes into collision with another philosophy, the resulting conflict can be catalyze exactly the kind of melodrama that powers an emotionally rich Romance novel. You can have conflict between characters that, when it’s done well, forces each of them to question their own beliefs and sense of purpose, and perhaps come to a new, better, more synergistic understanding of themselves and each other.

Although I would never describe myself as religious, I do often enjoy Romance novels where faith is a factor (Barbara Samuel’s A Bed of Spices, Patricia Gaffney’s To Love and To Cherish, for example), because the romance between the protagonists must be built on multiple levels of character development in order to be successful. Attraction isn’t enough, nor is the general attractiveness of the characters. Love often isn’t even enough, especially if there is a clash of beliefs or the perception of unsuitability on the part of either protagonist within the belief system of the other. And often protagonists must consciously work through these obstacles, which allows the reader to be engaged by understanding and vicariously experiencing the characters’ struggle.

Thinking back to some of the military-themed books I’ve enjoyed, that sense of mission and idealism can provide depth and dimension to a Romance, even when I find myself in political conflict with certain aspects of the novels. Ditto for sports-themed books or even certain romantic suspense Romances. The more integrated the values of someone’s profession are into who they are on the page, the more likely I am to find them interesting, even when my own beliefs may not align with theirs. What this means is that these philosophies are not superficially or mindlessly executed, but rather that they are authentically enmeshed in the character’s sense of being to be meaningful in that person’s life, and therefore, in their relationships.

For a long time I did not understand the really focused attention that some historical Romance authors and readers trained on titles, social standing, and manners/rules. But if I think about it in these terms, those social structures can themselves operate as a kind of philosophy, one that provides both structure and boundaries to behavior, and thus, love, which is, as we all know, a most unruly and unstructured emotion, and one that can, when it comes into contact with strict social mores, give rise to delicious conflict and raised stakes for and in the relationship.

And one of the reasons I think I tend to give a pass to some of the historicals that Sunita critiqued in her recent post on ahistoricty, is that even though the issues tackled in the books may be displaced historically (and yes, that comes with some problematic implications), at least some of these books are actually driven by a sensibility that deepens the romantic relationship and grounds it in an issue that is bigger than the protagonists but simultaneously imposing itself on their chance at happiness together. In my hierarchy of tradeoffs, I’ll often choose a more global sense of purposefulness over historically authentic engagement, although certainly both would be ideal.

Although not everyone is driven by an overweening search for meaning, I do think our lives are very much structured by philosophical belief systems, even if those are the rituals and values we’ve inherited from our parents and never questioned or shed. Whether it’s a belief about how the universe is organized, about the existence and nature of a supreme being, or a sense of dedication to a social, political, or personal ideal, there’s an extent to which people thrive in an environment that coheres with their sense of self. And that environment is always built on one or more belief systems, even if they are not overtly articulated.

I do wonder, though, if there is more and more reluctance on the part of authors to engage with driving philosophies or belief systems, either from a fear of offending readers (perhaps with perceived religiosity), or from a sense of pressure to produce shorter books on a faster timeline. And so many Romance tropes have become shorthand for these philosophical systems – military Romances, biker club Romances, Scottish highlander Romances, etc. – that perhaps we’ve been lulled into a perception that only certain kinds of belief systems are fit for mainstream non-inspirational (and non-religious) Romance.

Still, I find myself yearning for more books with a “driving philosophy,” to use Jovan’s term, that isn’t necessarily religious. So much of what I enjoy about Romance is the way intimate engagement between protagonists forces them to contemplate issues and questions beyond those that sexual attraction and emotional attachment answer – questions like ‘how does this person fit into the world as I see it?’ or ‘what are this person’s values and how do they align with mine?’ or ‘what does this person believe about the world, and how do those beliefs challenge or clash with mine, and is that conflict significant to our future happiness?’ Questions, in other words, about how fundamental values affect and are affected by a romantic relationship.

Although I would love to see a more balanced approach to religion and spirituality within Romance, even more I’d like to see less reluctance to characters with “driving philosophies” of every kind. We often talk about Romance protagonists as “heroic,” which is an aspirational category in which something symbolically significant is making the lives of these characters interesting to readers. Is it merely the exercise of falling in love, or is it more than that, and if so, what, for you, makes the reading experience meaningful? By contrast, what do you actively avoid, and why?

Dear Author

What Makes A Romance Novel Endure?

Specifically, what makes a Romance novel endure? Think about the hundreds of Romance novels published each month –  in a multitude of subgenres and formats – and the thousands that adds up to each year. Where do all these books go, and what makes one book remain in our collective memory over hundreds, even thousands, of others?

I started thinking about this when I was re-reading The Windflower for my conversational review with Sunita. Here is a book that in so many ways is indicative of its time (1984)—an innocent heroine with tons of bravado who pretty much grows up on page; a jaded hero who becomes emotionally in touch when he falls in lust and then love with the spirited but innocent heroine; and plenty of melodramatic urgency and extremity to make the hero and heroine’s journey to happiness both arduous and long. And yet, readers can still pick it up for the first time, years after its publication, and be immersed and enchanted. Is that what makes a “classic Romance”? And if so, what sets that book apart in providing that experience from all the others published along side it?

This question was raised in a sideways manner a few months ago when the idea of a Romance canon was raised. Wendy wrote a very good wrap-up of that particular controversy, with many suggested authors and books for a Romance canon.  And still, for every Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas, Joan Smith, Victoria Holt, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Nora Roberts, Christine Feehan, Bertrice Small, and Charlotte Lamb, there are dozens of names not only all but forgotten, but out of print to the point where their books are essentially out of circulation. And even for those authors whose names have not iconic, was their success presaged in their early works? Although the first few Lisa Kleypas books are among my favorite of her historicals, the writing is far weaker than her later books. And some of Charlotte Lamb and Anne Stuart’s books are just so chock full of crazy that some may wonder why they have remained so influential in the genre. And then there are writers like Bertrice Small, who, in some ways, are still writing in a similar vein to their earlier books, and whose work still seems to sell pretty robustly.

And then take a look at today’s market and how all over the place it seems. From the far extremes of erotic stories to the popularity of MC books and the upswing of New Adult, to the downslope of historicals, readers are complaining about poor writing, horrible editing, derivative plots, copycat themes, covers, and titles, and more chock full of crazy (can we just accept that that’s an ongoing theme in the genre?).

Italo Calvino has constructed a pretty famous checklist for designating a book as a classic. His list is pretty extensive, but here are a few key criteria:

The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.

A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.

A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.

‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.

Salon’s Laura Miller took on the same question, pointing to Calvino’s list, as well as to a Goodreads discussion that raised the same issue.

Miller complicated the formula, pointing to the fact that individual taste plays a huge role in how a book is received:

This is why we will go on arguing about what constitutes a classic book for as long as we read books at all: While the label is bestowed by the culture at large and we tend to judge it by an unquantifiable impression we have of how much prestige has accumulated around a particular book, that prestige is still built from the idiosyncratic experiences of individual readers. The fact that many readers hate “The Scarlet Letter” can’t disqualify it as a classic, but only because many more readers have loved it, or at least found it profound. Yet that doesn’t mean the opinions of the rejecting readers don’t count or that they can’t at some point overbalance the novel’s admirers and cause it to drift into obscurity. No wonder those Vonnegut novels keep migrating. Whatever a classic book may be, it doesn’t ever seem to stand still.

And yet, there are books within the Romance genre that we almost universally recognize as classic. These are not even books that would qualify as pristinely written (Woodiwiss, for example, or Small), but they somehow rise above other books around them. Some books seem to have conflicted status – Judith Ivory’s books, for example. I know many readers who would not include them as classics and other readers who would. What qualifies or disqualifies her work from that title? Are Laura Kinsale’s books classics? How do her books compare to, say, Tracy Grant’s historicals? Or Christine Monson’s? When I was thinking about what character in genre Romance was most like The Windflower’s Cat, Samuel from Kinsale’s The Shadow and The Star was the first hero I thought of, except that Samuel had a big head start in terms of a loving family and a clear life path compared to Cat. Fallen Professor compared Cat to Dain from Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, a book that feels so much lighter in tone to me that I cannot compare them at all.  In fact, for me, Lord of Scoundrels is a book the appeal of which I have never fully understood. Is it because I did not read it at the time it was written? And yet, one of the supposed qualifications of a classic is that it speaks both of its time and beyond it. Is this a book that transcends, and if so, why?

Even if we discard the idea that every genre has the same qualifications for a classic book, there does seem to be some uniformity within genre Romance about which books have had lasting impact. Heck, there are some books that are still being read, thirty, forty, fifty, even a hundred years after publication. But why those books? Why are people still reading LaVyrle Spencer, or re-reading her, at least? What about Jennifer Crusie or Julia Quinn or Laura Lee Guhrke? What kind of endurance do we expect these authors to have?

For me, classic status is more an academic question than an emotional one. I like the idea of putting books in a certain order, identifying influences, looking at how the genre develops and evolves through certain books, and seeing a variety of tropes reinterpreted within different historical contexts, both inside and outside the books themselves. Perhaps it comes down to appreciation over adoration for me, although a combination of both is ideal. I would not venture to say this is true for all, or even most, Romance readers, though.

What, for Romance, make certain books unforgettable, and is unforgettable the same thing as classic? Can notoriety alone create a classic read, or is there some standard of merit that must stand behind it? And if so, what standard? How do we define merit in a genre that may be more about emotional satisfaction and catharsis than wordsmithing? Even those books that may be deemed “bad” by current standards can be appreciated and even enjoyed as a nostalgic trip to the past. I’m not sure this is the same thing as a book “transcending,” though, if it doesn’t seem to retain a consistent standard of excellence. Still, what are the characteristics of excellence when we’re cataloguing Romance’s strengths?

I would argue that classic status requires more than popularity or memorability, but I’m not sure what. Is it the prose, and if so, what about it? Is it the tropes, and if so, why? Is it the character types, and if so, what type is more enduring or “classic” than another? Is it the tropes or the settings or the subgenres or the notoriety of a book? How many people think that readers are going to be picking up Fifty Shades in 30 years – or even thinking of is as a defining moment in the genre’s development?

Thinking back as long as you’ve been reading Romance, what are the books that stand out to you as genre classics and why? And thinking ahead as far as you can, what books published today do you think people will be reading? What books would you want them to be reading, and why?